Malaysia muddles timing of MH370 data tracking shutdown

The exact sequence of events in the cockpit of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is crucial to the investigation. The airline chief contradicted an account by the transport minister. 

Vincent Thian/AP
Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein shows the map of the northern search corridor during a press conference in Sepang, Malaysia, Monday, March 17, 2014. 26 countries are involved in the massive international search for the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that disappeared on March 8 with 239 people aboard.

A key detail in the investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been thrown into doubt after the airline chief said it was not clear exactly when the plane’s tracking system was turned off.

Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had told reporters on Sunday that the plane's ACARS system – a satellite data-link – had stopped transmitting before someone in the cockpit said “alright, goodnight” in the last voice transmission from the cockpit to Malaysian air traffic control. 

The suggestion was that the plot to divert the plane from its flight path to Beijing – and its subsequent rerouting – was already underway. It fueled suspicions of hijack or sabotage and that the pilot or co-pilot may have been responsible for turning off the ACARS before diverting the plane from its planned route.

Now Malaysia may be walking back that claim, adding to the sense of confusion that surrounds its zigzag investigation into what exactly happened to its missing jetliner. 

Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari told a press conference today that “we do not know when ACARS was switched off.” All that is known, he explained, was that the last ACARS transmission was received at 1:07 in the morning of March 8, and that the system sent no data half an hour later, when it was due to do so.

Malaysia's last voice contact with the plane came at 1:19. Mr. Jauhari said that “initial indications suggest that it was the co-pilot who spoke the last time.” The plane's transponder, which identifies a plane, stopped transmitting at 1:21.

But it's still unclear whether the ACARS system was turned off between 1:07 and 1:19, as Mr. Hishammuddin had indicated, or if the time frame was longer, and it was shut off between 1:07 and 1:37. Shortly after the last voice contact with the plane, it veered sharply westwards from its intended flight path to Beijing. It was detected by Malaysian military radar crossing the Malaysian peninsula but then disappeared over the Indian Ocean.

Satellite data suggests that the plane may have flown for as long as seven hours after it was last detected, though the data does not indicate the plane’s exact location. That evidence, and the fact that the plane followed a traditional navigational route for as long as radar could follow it, indicates that the Boeing 777 was being handled by somebody who understood the plane’s controls and navigation – either one or both of the pilots, voluntarily or under duress, or a passenger who had gained access to the cockpit.

No terrorist links found

Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said on Sunday that both Malaysian and foreign intelligence agencies had studied the passenger list and “cleared all the passengers” of known links to terrorist organizations.

The search effort is now being focused on two corridors, one stretching from Indonesia towards the Antarctic and the other from Laos to the Caspian Sea. Twenty-six countries are now involved in the operation, Hishammuddin said, and Malaysia is asking all the countries over which the plane may have flown to share their radar and satellite information. 

Hishammuddin, who is also Malaysia's defense minister, also revealed that police had visited the homes of the pilot and co-pilot as early as Mar. 9, the day after the plane disappeared, and had talked to their family members.

That contradicts what Malaysia's police chief told reporters Sunday. He had surprised observers by saying that police “did not see the necessity in the early stage” to investigate the possible involvement of the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah or the co-pilot Fariq Hamid in their plane’s disappearance.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to